RJ Hollis and Samantha Neyland discuss overcoming adversity and combating racism

Black History Month

The football field has always felt like home for RJ Hollis, a former University of Hawaii offensive lineman.

“I would pretty much hit the ground running any chance I’ve got with sports, you know, missing parties, missing chances to hang out or be with friends so I could go do push ups, or I could go do sprints, or I could go practice on my stances,” Hollis said about his childhood.

Hollis grew up in Alabama and Arizona. He said as a child, he didn’t understand the obstacles he was facing because of the color of his skin.

“I definitely think there was a lot of kids picked over me purely because of race or because of who their father was, or their uncle was or how tight knit they were within their own community,” Hollis said about what it was like being a black football player in high school.

But Hollis didn’t let that adversity stop him from achieving his goals.

“Especially as a young black man, raised by a single struggling mother, which is almost a carbon copy of 50 other young black men that I know, personally, you know? So to have to live with that and have the weight of, you know, early on trying to figure out a way to ease your struggles, to work harder, to be a better person, to make your life not as hard as your mother’s life was, that was just something that was always hard for me,” Hollis said. “And football was the only way I could really get out of that. So I worked, you know, to the bone, tooth and nail to try and get a scholarship, which fortunately, I was able to do.”

Hollis got a full ride to the University of Hawaii, playing on the rainbow warrior football team as an offensive lineman.

As Hollis was paving his own path, so was another face that is familiar to Hawaii residents, Samantha Neyland.

Neyland became the first black Miss Hawaii Teen USA in 2013. But her journey to the crown wasn’t easy.

“Someone told me that it was a big deal that I was the first black woman to win Miss Hawaii Teen USA, but it only happened because I was a teen and Hawaii would never crown a black Miss Hawaii,” Neyland said about the cruel words she was told right after winning the teen pageant in 2013.

Those words stung, but it also fueled Neyland’s fire.

“It was seven years later when I decided to compete for Miss Hawaii USA, and suddenly that comment was replaying over and over and over again,” Neyland said.

On November 11, 2019, Neyland proved all her haters wrong.

“I woke up that morning and I just thought, ‘I’m good. I could win today… I could not win today, but I have accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish, and I feel great about who I am and I don’t care what they have to say,'” Neyland said about how she felt on the morning of the Miss Hawaii USA pageant.

Winning Miss Hawaii USA 2020 meant more than just the crown to Neyland. It was her time to make meaningful change in Hawaii.

“We are trying to get June 19th recognized as a day of remembrance here in Hawaii,” Neyland said. “Juneteenth or June 19 is the day that slavery officially ended in the U.S. So most people think it ended when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which legally it did, but it wasn’t until two and a half years later that the final slaves who were in Galveston, Texas were freed.”

While Neyland’s reign as Miss Hawaii USA is over, she is still trying to make Juneteenth a state holiday.

“When you take the time to recognize someone’s pain, someone’s history, you’re taking the time to understand and get to know them, and I think that’s something we need to do for all communities here in Hawaii,” she said about why making Juneteenth a state holiday is so important to the black community.

Both Neyland and Hollis said the aloha state can set an example for the rest of the country.

“There’s no, you know, community that you go to where people truly live aloha like Hawaii,” Hollis said. “I think that’s a very big part of Hawaii that accepted me is that aloha… I love Hawaii for that. That’s why I’m still here long after graduating, and if I could, I’d stay for the rest of my life.”

However, that doesn’t mean Hawaii is immune to racism.

Neyland experienced it in these islands when she was just a teenager.

“There were girls in my high school who wanted to fight me because I won and I didn’t look like them or I didn’t look the way they expected a Miss Hawaii Teen USA to look,” Neyland said.

Hollis said he believes that hate is taught.

“People that live two blocks away from each other are taught as children to hate somebody because of the geographical location they were born in within one city limit, and they grew up to kill each other, and that’s predominant in the black community,” Hollis explained. “But that is the same realm as the proud boys who are brought up and taught to hate races. It’s what you’re taught.”

Hollis added that it is never too late to start educating oneself about racism and learning how to love.

“You got to have those uncomfortable conversations. You got to be able to have the perspective of someone, even if that’s someone you don’t agree with, or someone that doesn’t look like you,” Hollis explained.

Neyland said if discussing race is new to you, you may not nail it every time, but it’s the effort that counts.

“If you are coming at the conversation from a point of wanting to learn, wanting to be better. It’s okay. It’s like learning how to ride a bike. If you’re too scared to fall, you’re never going to learn,” she said.

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